NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Mental Dance

Two dancers face each other two metres apart in a bare studio. Drawing arcs in the air between them with deft counterweighted movement, their mirrored gestures trigger strings of words: “White matter … things to infer … spectral hearing … brain has to save you.” An echolalia or a mashup of phrases representing mental spaces: words and movements cohere and collide in moments of dissonance and convergence.

By Professor Carol Brown 

Two dancers face each other two metres apart in a bare studio. Drawing arcs in the air between them with deft counterweighted movement, their mirrored gestures trigger strings of words:  “White matter … things to infer … spectral hearing … brain has to save you.” An echolalia or a mashup of phrases representing mental spaces: words and movements cohere and collide in moments of dissonance and convergence. As their cycling arm gestures gather momentum, the dancers release into more complex asynchronous variations as snatches of music – a solo piano and sounds like the smashing of glass –  intervene. Listening and moving together, the dancers improvise with the stimuli of words and sounds triggered by their bodily actions and augmented through human-computer interaction. Neural Networks is a duet within Mental Dance, a performance research collaboration between neuroscientist Marta Garrido, interactive sound designer Monica Lim, vocal and movement improviser Sunny Kim, dancers Luigi Vescio and Jordine Cornish, musician and music therapist Russell Scoones and myself as choreographer.

It is not until the development of tools like EEG, MRI and functional MRI that neuroscientists have been able to shed light on how the brain responds to auditory stimuli and how the mind dances through the firing of neurons when we perceive movement.

How do we create new ways to express ourselves and our bodies and how might these investigations make us feel better, even healthier? Dance and music have a deep history of entangled relation in fostering health and wellbeing including through ritual, therapeutic, cultural and experimental performance. But it is not until the development of tools like EEG, MRI and functional MRI that neuroscientists have been able to shed light on how the brain responds to auditory stimuli and how the mind dances through the firing of neurons when we perceive movement.

Mental Dance is a University of Melbourne Creativity and Wellbeing Research Initiative (CAWRI) project exploring how neuroscientific concepts might inform an artistic process drawing attention to the coexistence of music and dance in generating experiences that enhance creative health. Playing with improvisation as a dance of attention catalysed by motional and musical stimuli, the project acknowledges corporeal and neuro diversity as vital to artistic health contributing to the generation of novel experiences that can be shared with audiences.

Amplifying the effect of movement through wearable sensors, we test different feeling-tones … creating an organic machine that invites audiences to perceive movement and sound in relation countering the pervasive view that dance is an art of the body and music an art of the mind.

A shared interest in dance and music between the three lead researchers has been vital to the sustaining of this research project undertaken during COVID times. Garrido, who leads the Cognitive Neuroscience and Computational Psychiatry Lab shared her research with the artistic team, attending rehearsals online, observing movement improvisations and participating in interviews. Inspired by Garrido’s research, Lim and I, from MCM and VCA respectively, worked on choreomusical scores with the dancers and vocalist that took hold of scientific concepts developed through the Lab in particular Predictive Coding and the Bayesian Brain. Using artistic strategies, we  abstracted these into sets of instructions, tasks and rhythmic and temporal structures. Lim used markov chain analysis to mash up words from the different knowledge domains of neuroscience, psychiatry and literature and I directed the dancers and vocalist’s improvisations that embodied these scores. Through these actions of cross modal transfer, patterns and gestures  of movement were mapped to sounds and music, transforming these and generating feedback loops that altered movement content and range.

The interactive sound design for Mental Dance uses wearable sensors (Inertial Measurement Units or IMUs) attached to various parts of the performers bodies to shape sound in real-time. The primary sound source are live vocals and pre-recorded vocals, bringing to the fore the human voice of scientific research including Garrido’s explanations of concepts like the Bayesian brain. The IMUs capture orientation and acceleration data which are then processed in MaxMSP. The performers orchestrate and play with the sounds that are generated through their movements and vocals, shaping, sustaining, disrupting and accenting the sonic environment through shifting dynamics across levels and dimensions of space.

Augmenting kinesthetic and aural sensory data, wearable technologies enable new synchronies of sound and movement to emerge through reciprocal relations. The performers can shift audience attention towards different qualities and intensities of movement and sound in relation. They can also allow the sound to guide their improvisation, entering into diverse and unpredictable psychosomatic states as they improvise. Movement activated sound stimulates feedback loops between gesture, pitch and tempo. Dance becomes a way to experience the interconnectedness between systems and to explore agency that is generated by both somatic stimuli and a digital interface.

Dance, music and sound improvisations evoke somatic states. Amplifying the effect of movement through wearable sensors, we test different feeling-tones. We can think of this process as creating an organic machine that invites audiences to perceive movement and sound in relation countering the pervasive view that dance is an art of the body and music an art of the mind. Public workshops and performances of MENTAL dance as part of the Science Gallery Melbourne’s Public Programme in August will enable the researchers to “test” the capacity of the performance system to inform, enhance or generate moods, emotions and feeling-tones through the atmospherics of a sci-art event.

Mental Dance seeks to explore whether novel interactions between human movement, voice and digitally manipulated sound drawing on neuroscientific concepts can affect mood, atmosphere and emotion. Structuring the sonic in relation to the kinetic becomes a way of synthesising art forms and amplifying their affective trace in the moment. In Mental Dance, expert performers sculpt sound and alter dynamics, the elusive science of performance presence comes into dialogue with algorithmic and programmatic technologies that augment sensory address. Staying present to variability and change in movement texture and tone opens the performance  experience to a multiplicity of expressions as well as vulnerabilities as we cannot know in advance what these states will become. It is this unpredictability, so vital to the improvisational practice of dancers and musician-vocalists, that we bring into dialogue with current neuroscientific concepts around Predictive Coding and the Bayesian brain. Bringing these disciplinary knowledges into proximity we are challenged by the fault lines that run between artistic and scientific methods, in particular our different stake in and relationships to data, quantification, mindbody and factuality and the risk of instrumentalising the arts. However, through developing collaborative relationships and choreomusical scores, we seek to activate techno-scientific-embodied states, suturing scientific concepts to movement and vocal improvisations for an augmented stage. The ancient and contemporary powers of performance meet the imperative of neuroscientific research to better understand and appreciate the neural underpinnings of learning and decision making. Improvisers deal with contingency, the unpredictable and the novel in their enactment of the moment, it is these skills which are vital for coping with an environment that is undergoing disruptive change. In sharing our research with audiences and inviting participation through public workshops, we aim to test the performance system’s capacity to generate expressive and generative affects through a dance of attention. The ancient role of the performing arts as a locus for collective health and healing becomes, in the context of the Science Gallery, reimagined with 21st century tools.


Carol Brown is a New Zealand born dancer-choreographer and Head of Dance at the Victorian College of Arts, University of Melbourne. She completed one of the first practice-led PhDs in Dance at the University of Surrey UK and was formerly Choreographer in Residence at the Place Theatre London where she founded Carol Brown Dances. Her company have toured internationally and been presented by major festivals including Roma Europa, Dance Umbrella, Brighton Festival, Ars Electronica and the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. Carol’s work has been acknowledged through a NESTA Dream Time Fellowship, the Jerwood Choreography Prize, and the Ludwig Forum International Prize. She writes regularly for peer-reviewed journals on performance, technology and space and has contributed chapters to key texts on dance, technology, site dance and choreography.

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